Sunday we celebrate the birthday of one of the most brilliant minds in the field of economics, Milton Friedman. While he won the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on monetary policy, he was also a champion of school choice. Some Arkansans are currently benefiting from the freedom to choose where their kids attend school, and they owe some gratitude to Dr. Friedman.
While not exactly proposing the kind of school-choice menu Arkansas currently has, his idea of injecting competition in the public school system is the rationale behind introducing school choice in Arkansas.
In Friedman's 1980 book Free to Choose, he makes an argument for a different system of financing education. Instead of directly funding public schools, the government would give parents education vouchers redeemable at a school of their choice. Schools would then compete for the students by offering quality education.
Today, the Arkansas school-choice menu includes district transfers, charter-school options, and home-schooling. Beginning in the fall, the menu will expand to include a limited voucher program that will only be served to special-needs children and dependents of active-duty military.
While this menu may satisfy some, there are unnecessary limits.
For starters, these school-choice options should be made available for all who wish to partake. There is an arbitrary 3 percent cap imposed on transfers from a school district. Additionally, court desegregation orders allow certain school districts to reject inter-district school transfers. According to the Arkansas Department of Education, there are currently 16 school districts that have asked for exemptions to participate in inter-district school transfers.
These arbitrary restrictions prevent Arkansas families from getting their kids the best education they can. For example, the Dulaney family of Jacksonville and the McAuliffe family of El Dorado had their transfer requests to the Cabot and Parkers Chapel school districts rejected. While these two families were fortunate enough to have these decisions overruled by the Education Board, many families are not. Does Arkansas really want to be known as a state that prevents children from receiving a great education?
The artificial restrictions do not end with inter-district transfers. There is a separate arbitrary cap placed on the number of open-enrollment charter schools allowed in Arkansas. The cap is currently set at 29. But the sheer amount of students on charter-school wait lists is evidence enough that the cap is an impediment to Arkansans receiving the education they desire. For example, in February of 2016, eStem charter school had about 6,000 students on the wait list, an indication that parents desire this choice.
Those in favor of removing the charter school cap face fierce opposition from traditional public schools. For example, the expansions of LISA Academy and eStem charter schools in Little Rock were strongly opposed by the Little Rock School District. This opposition is a result of the competition for students between charter schools and traditional public schools.
Competition, however, is what Milton Friedman saw as the force that would drive public schools to perform better. A review of school-choice research by the Friedman Foundation suggests that Friedman was correct: Competition improves academic outcomes of students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools and improves students' civic values.
But with all these restrictions, is there true competition among Arkansas schools? Not enough. Even the voucher program that starts in fall of 2016, which is heavily restricted to students with special needs and dependents of active-duty military, is currently limited to 100 students.
While Arkansas' school-choice menu may look appetizing to some, it is just that--an appetizer. The restrictions imposed on the options impede competition and prevent us from having a full menu of options for parents and students. Many parents, even those in failing school districts, are not able to choose a better school.
The Legislature should remove many of the current restrictions and allow all Arkansas students to choose from a broader, more satisfying menu of educational options.
Mavuto Kalulu is a research associate at the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics (ACRE) at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.
Editorial on 07/30/2016